Amendment 3 op ed

Friday, October 27, 2006

By RUDI KELLER

Southeast Missourian

I'm a smoker. Raise my taxes.

That's right, I spend $23.55 a week on a carton of cigarettes, and I don't think it is enough. If Amendment 3 on the Nov. 7 ballot passes, I will pay four cents more for every cigarette, or $8 a carton.

And if I'm willing to pay more, I can't understand why anyone who doesn't earn a living making or selling cigarettes would even consider voting against Amendment 3 on the Nov. 7 ballot.

As a reporter for this newspaper, I try hard to make my writing clearly reflect the individuals and events I cover. Some of my proudest moments occur when people of varied political opinions tell me that my articles don't give them any clues to my personal outlook.

But on this issue, I have decided to step out of my objective-reporter stance to make a case for increasing taxes on one of the most deadly legal products on the market.

The first clue that this tax is a good idea is the amount of money being spent by tobacco companies to defeat it. Reynolds American Inc., maker of my favorite brand, contributed $2.2 million of the $2.3 million raised to oppose Amendment 3. Who can blame the company for trying to keep prices down in one of its best markets?

Granted, the Missouri Hospital Association, one of the main beneficiaries of the additional revenue from Amendment 3, paid to put the measure on the ballot. Of the $3.1 million raised to promote Amendment 3, the hospital association ponied up $1.5 million. The American Cancer Society kicked in $445,000 as well.

But whom do you trust more when it comes to purity of motives: tobacco peddlers or hospitals?

While nationwide about 21 percent of adults smoke, just over 24 percent of Missouri adults are smokers. Adult smoking is fine by me, not just because I am a smoker, but because adults are old enough to know that a lifetime of smoking is far more likely to kill you than not.

But in Missouri, the smoking rate among high school students is higher than the rate among adults. And the group with the biggest percentage of smokers is high school girls, with almost 27 percent lighting up.

One of the best deterrents to teen smoking is price. Studies show that as cigarette prices rise, people quit. The 80-cent-a-pack increase on the November ballot could reduce the teen smoking rate in Missouri by up to 20 percent.

But a tobacco tax increase could also prevent another perceived evil: a general tax increase. The Missouri Legislature last year enacted deep cuts in the Medicaid program because spiraling costs threatened to bankrupt the state treasury. Amendment 3 is a good start for rewriting the program, because the vast majority of the money raised would be spent on the Medicaid program.

I've seen the message from Amendment 3 opponents knocking the new tax because it will hit the poor the hardest.

I don't doubt that, but why not take a portion of the money that will be spent on health care for the poor from the poor? I pay for a portion of my health insurance through a deduction from my paycheck. The same principle applies to the tobacco tax.

I've tried hard up not to shower you with too many numbers. But let's put Amendment 3 in perspective.

Missouri's current tax on cigarettes, 17 cents a pack, is the second lowest in the nation. Two adjoining states, Illinois and Oklahoma, have tax rates higher than Missouri's if Amendment 3 wins. Passage would end illegal bootlegging of low-tax Missouri cigarettes to other states.

Based on current sales figures, the tax would raise about $351 million annually. Of that amount, $61 million would be spent on smoking-prevention and cessation programs. The remainder would be spent on Medicaid, potentially drawing an additional $456 million in federal aid for the program.

The split works this way:

* $102 million would be spent to increase access to medically necessary health-care programs, services and coverage for people making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $33,200 for a single mother with two children).

* $102 million to increase payments to doctors and other providers as an incentive to continue serving indigent patients. This would reduce the pressure to raise insurance premiums for those not using Medicaid.

* $44 million to compensate hospitals for emergency-room and trauma care for low income and uninsured Missourians.

* $38 million for clinics, such as Cross Trails Medical Center, which are a safety net for the uninsured.

* $4 million for emergency ambulance services provided to the poor.

There are a couple of other arguments against Amendment 3. The first is that the tobacco tax is a first step toward imposing steep taxes on other "sin" products, such as beer or liquor.

While those taxes, like the tobacco tax, are only paid by people who use the product, it is an unlikely scenario. Amendment 3 was placed on the ballot by an initiative petition financed by the Missouri Hospital Association, and cigarettes are used by a minority almost certain to experience health problems if they continue to smoke. Liquor, in moderate quantities, is healthful, and the issue of taxing liquor to promote health is far less clear-cut.

Another opposition argument is that a tax shouldn't be part of the Missouri Constitution and that the language detailing how it should be spent is more appropriately placed in state statutes.

Experience tells us, however, that the constitution is exactly where this language belongs. The Conservation Department tax is part of the constitution, as is the tax for state parks and soil conservation. Both taxes have worked remarkably well, and the directions for spending them are included in the constitution. No one has tinkered with either tax or diverted any of the money.

Not so for initiative-passed taxes written into the statutes. In 1982, Missourians passed Proposition C, a sales tax for schools that dedicated half the money to districts on a per-pupil basis and set aside the rest to reduce property taxes. It was so successful that some districts eliminated their local levy. Then the tinkering began. Not once, but twice the legislature imposed minimum property taxes on school districts.

The Missouri Legislature, without asking voter approval of the changes, diverted the money from the intentions of those who drafted the measure.

So, on Election Day, raise my taxes to keep yours low. It will make my smokes taste just a little better.

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